Phoenix couple in Section 8 housing takes corporate landlord to court -- and wins

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Serena and Latisha Rich won their case against their landlord. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Serena and Latisha Rich won their case against their landlord. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

They couldn’t afford an attorney, and they couldn’t afford to lose.

A low-income Phoenix family facing more than $5,500 in questionable charges from their landlord decided to take the case to court themselves.

The verdict is in.

“We won!” said Serena Rich with a smile. “We won!”

Serena and her wife Latisha, mothers of five living in Section 8 housing, represented themselves against Colony Starwood Homes. The publicly-traded company, which also operates under the name Waypoint Homes, manages more than 30,000 single-family properties across 10 states.

“We're trying to teach our kids, when you do your homework and you research stuff and you have stuff lined up in order, anything's possible,” said Latisha Rich.

Back in September, the odds were against them. After trouble getting the company to complete simple repairs, the frustrated family decided to move out. The couple said they requested a move-out inspection, but the property manager never showed up.

Then came the bill: $5,548.88 for damage to the home.

It was far more than the family could afford.

“Trying to pay a $5,000 on top of my 5 kids -- no way!” said Serena.

[RELATED: Phoenix family says photos show they were improperly charged for rental damage]

A Waypoint inspector found bedroom doors split in half, along with huge sections of carpet that needed to be replaced and other damage, and blamed the family for trashing the place.

But the Riches anticipated there might be a dispute about the condition of the home, and took date-stamped pictures showing the damage wasn’t there when they moved out.

“They hone in on folks that are either disabled or low-income, or folks that don’t have the ability to hire an attorney,” said LaVitta Cooks, Serena’s sister, of Waypoint Homes.

A spokesperson for the company did not respond to an emailed request for comment Friday. The law firm that represented the company, Hull, Holliday & Holliday, also did not respond to voicemails and a text message.

Cooks, who does not have legal experience, helped the couple take their case to justice court. Colony Starwood fired back with a 110-page counter-lawsuit and multiple witnesses ready to testify at trial.

In the end, the family won. And now Colony Starwood owes them money.

“After extensive review of the evidence presented and notes taken from testimony, it is hereby ordered granting judgment in favor of the Plaintiff for the return of the security deposit amount of $1,139,” the judge wrote.

The judge determined that Colony Starwood refused the family their right to a move-out inspection, and in doing so, forfeited their right to dispute the condition of the home. The court also found the couple provided enough evidence to establish they left the home in good condition.

“You fight for what's right,” said Serena Rich. “If they fight for what's wrong, [the truth] will always come out in the end.”

“If you're honest and you believe in what you're doing, fight for it!” added Cooks. “Don't give up, because we just did it! And we can't believe it – we just did it!”

The judge dismissed Colony Starwood’s counter-lawsuit with prejudice, meaning the company cannot file a new lawsuit on the same claim.

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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